WW42 v5F The SS Normandie Fire .pdf



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Observation Post
BEHIND THE LINES
The SS Normandie Fire

T

Three US Catalina flying boats were
destroyed in the harbor as well, while
two US freighters were also sunk
northwest of Bathurst Island by Vals
from Hiryu and Soryu. In return,
the defending anti-aircraft batteries
managed to damage only a few
enemy planes and down one Val.
Around noon, 27 Japanese Army
G4M1 “Betty” bombers flying from
Kendari, and 27 G3M1 “Nell” bombers
staging from Ambon, also appeared
above Darwin. They concentrated
on the military airfield. While one
formation flew in from the southwest,
the other roared in from the northeast,
both arriving over the base and dropping their ordnance at the same time.
They then turned and made a second
pass over the field. Two hangers, four
barracks, the mess hall, the hospital
and a number of storage buildings
were obliterated. That attack also took
out six Hudson light bombers and
damaged another, while two P-40s
(the ones landed by B Flight after their
encounter of that morning), and a US
B-24 bomber were blown to pieces.
Six RAAF personnel were killed.
70

he SS Normandie, launched
on 29 October 1932,
was the largest ocean
liner in the world prior to the Queen
Elizabeth’s debut in 1938. On her
maiden voyage, Normandie broke
the speed records from Europe to
New York City and back, earning
the coveted “Blue Ribbon” for both
trips. She was the apogee of French
national pride before World War II.
When the Compagnie Generale
Transatlantique accepted her, she
weighed 79,280 tons, which was less
than her rival the Queen Mary at
83,000 tons but faster at 30.58 to 30
knots. Normandie generated 160,000
horsepower to the Queen Mary’s
220,000, but the French vessel had
three significant advantages: a bulbous
After all his aircraft were recovered, bow, a tapered hull and turbo-electric
Nagumo steered for Kendari,
propulsion. The bow created a wave
arriving there on 21 February. The
that reduced friction, and her teardrop
Darwin operation was evaluated a
hull made her more hydrodynamic. To
having been a complete success.
this day Normandie remains the largest
Unlike Pearl Harbor, where
ship built using turbo-electric propulNagumo’s airmen failed to hit fuel
sion, which created a 20 percent fuel
stocks, repair facilities and other instal- efficiency over then-existing systems.
lations—those kinds of assets were
Normandie was a monument
thoroughly destroyed in the Darwin
to French prestige even though her
raid. The total cost to the defenders
designer was a Russian émigré.
was 191 killed and 107 wounded in
Vladimir Yourkevitch was born in
the attack on the harbor; 300 to 400
Moscow on 5 June 1885; he graduated
others were wounded elsewhere.
from the St. Petersburg Polytechnic
Sixty-eight of the casualties were
University in 1909 and worked as
civilians. Japanese aircraft losses were
an engineer in the Baltic Shipyard
just two machines, with crew losses
at St. Petersburg. Yourkevitch fled
totaling seven, of which two were killed to Constantinople with his wife
and one taken prisoner. The others
during the Russian Revolution, and
were rescued by Japanese forces.
in 1922 they moved to Paris. Later
The port at Darwin was
they moved to St. Nazaire, where he
rebuilt and made into a major
was hired to work in the shipyard.
supply depot ringed by numerous
After some months, his design for
new airfields. Even so, Australia
a new liner was judged superior.
would be attacked by Japanese
On 26 January 1931 the first steel
airpower 62 more times between
plate was affixed to hull number
March 1942 and November 1943.
T6. On 29 October 1932, in front of
a crowd of 100,000, the T6 slid into
— Arnold Blumberg the water. On 5 May 1935 the SS
WORLD at WAR 42 | JUN – JUL 2015

This iconic poster is still a common item in home decor. Few of those displaying
it, however, have any idea as to the sad fate of the ship it depicts.

Normandie steamed out of St. Nazaire.
On 29 May 1935 at 5:30 p.m., the
Normandie, with 1,014 passengers
and 1,339 crew, departed Le Havre for
her maiden voyage. She crossed the

Atlantic—3,266 miles in four days,
three hours and two minutes—at
an average speed of 29.6 knots.
That beat the then-current Blue
Ribbon holder, the Italian liner Rex,
WORLD at WAR 42 | JUN – JUL 2015

71

Observation Post

The Normandie in schematic.

The Normandie at sea prior to the start of the war.

which had averaged 28.92 knots.
The Normandie and Queen Mary
traded the blue ribbon back and
forth until 1938 when the latter took
it and kept it. The SS United States
won it in July 1952 and retains it still.
By 1939 the Normandie had crossed
the Atlantic 139 times and carried a
total of 133,170 passengers. On 23
August, as war loomed, the ship left
France for what turned out to be forever. She would remain at Pier 88 in New
York for two years, kept there to avoid
any chance of her falling under Nazi or
Vichy French control. On 5 May 1941
John Baylis, captain of the port of New
72

York, boarded the Normandie with two
Coast Guard officers and announced
that service branch was assuming
responsibility for the ship’s security.
The Coast Guard officers at first
agreed their men would secure the
dock and the approaches to it while
the French crew would maintain
security aboard. At 11:00 p.m., however, Baylis and 11 Coast Guardsmen
again boarded and took control.
Baylis explained the government in
Washington had ordered him to seize
the ship: the crew were henceforth
to be considered in protective
custody, but could remain aboard.
WORLD at WAR 42 | JUN – JUL 2015

On 2 November 1941 the US Navy
took over from the Coast Guard. That
was followed, on 12 December 1941,
by the USN seizing all French ships
in American ports. The French crew
was then ordered off the Normandie,
though the captain and 15 officers were
later permitted to re-board. On the 27th
the navy officially converted the liner
into a transport. Due to insufficient
USN dry dock space, the conversion
was to be made at Pier 88 after she
was renamed USS Lafayette (AP-53).
The Robbins Dry Dock and
Shipping Company won the conversion contract, and new equipment
began to arrive on Christmas Eve
1941. Among the equipment were
1,413 life preservers, stored in the
Grand Salon and wrapped in “protective”—but flammable—burlap.
The Normandie had been
designed for easy fire suppression.
She was divided into main sections, all
separated by insulated watertight bulkheads and then further divided into a
total of 126 fire sections. She had three
sets of pumps, each capable of 1,100
gallons per minute. The mains had 504
outlets for fire hoses. When Normandie
first docked in New York, CGT installed
an alarm that was operated from the
bridge and connected directly to the
New York City Fire Department. A

month after the US seized the ship,
CGT ceased paying for that service.
The work for Monday, 9 February
1942, included the removal of
four stanchions in the Grand
Salon. A work gang was formed
consisting of a foreman, a welder,
two firewatchers and eight laborers.
By 2:30 p.m. they’d nearly severed
all the stanchions. The last was the one
aft on the port side. One of the laborers
held an asbestos shield behind the
welder to prevent sparks from his torch
arcing back. When the last stanchion
was lowered to the horizontal, to
aid in finishing the cutting, the man
holding the shield dropped it to help.
A live spark then flew, unimpeded,
onto one of the life preserver piles.
The workmen noticed a guttering
flame and pulled back some of the
burning life preservers, in that way
inadvertently spreading the fire.
A fire hose was brought into play,
and then another, but only a trickle
emerged from them. One workman
sought to deploy a fire extinguisher,
but it was empty. The workers were
then reduced to trying to beat out the
flames by hand. (It was later learned
the ship’s entire fire suppression
system had been disconnected
during the preceding week.)
The fire was reported to the ship’s
central fire station, the bridge, and the
on-board fire brigade personnel. The
distribution room terminated ventilation to retard the flame’s advance.

The man on bridge duty couldn’t
activate the general alarm because
a worker had disconnected the
switches days earlier, as part of the
reconstruction, but he’d then also
failed to notify anyone of that fact.
One Coast Guard officer heard about
the fire and ran into the salon with a
fire hose. When he tried to connect
it, though, he found the American
hose didn’t fit the French valve.
Another officer ran off the ship
and alerted a policeman patrolling on

the pier. Simultaneously the pier-side
fire alarm went off. At that time the
fire’s only fatality occurred, when a
workman was blown from the sun
deck by an exploding welding tank.
The bedlam mounted. There were
nearly 1,200 workers, Coast Guard and
USN personnel aboard; however, there
was no set line of authority. At 3:00
p.m. Adm. Adolphus Andrews (senior
USN officer in the port), Capt. Baylis
and several other officers arrived.
A call to the fire department had

Capsized at the pier the day after the fire.

What she was to have looked
like as the USS Lafayette.

WORLD at WAR 42 | JUN – JUL 2015

73

Observation Post

The ship being towed to New Jersey.

gone out at 2:45, and fireboat John
J. Harvey arrived soon thereafter.
A second call went out at 3:01, and
another fireboat, the Fire Fighter and
some ground units responded.
By 5:45 p.m. most of the ship’s
interior had been consumed, and
the fire began to wane; however, the
water aboard had frozen and the ship
developed a port list. Approximately an
hour after the fire had started, the ship
was listing 10 degrees to port. When the
fire was declared under control at 6:30
p.m., the list became the next concern.
An attempt was made to partially
flood her, to resettle on an even keel,
but the dense smoke still inside the
74

vessel thwarted the men trying to find
the proper valves. Some holes were
cut into the starboard side, and hoses
were poked through from the outside
to counter-flood. Working from the
outside, though, they couldn’t find
enough safe areas to flood, so the list
was only reduced by a few degrees.
By 9:30 p.m. the list had increased
to 17 degrees, and by midnight
it was 35 degrees. At 12:30 a.m.
Andrews ordered abandon ship,
and she capsized at 2:45, nearly
destroying a fireboat as she rolled.
By the time the fifth and final alarm
sounded at 4:08 p.m. a total of 24
pumper trucks, six ladder trucks and
WORLD at WAR 42 | JUN – JUL 2015

three fireboats had been deployed to
the scene. The fireboats alone pumped
839,420 gallons of water. It was the
New York Fire Department’s largest
single deployment to that time.
As it happed, Yourkevitch was actually working nearby. He’d immigrated
to the US in 1939 and opened a marine
engineering office in Manhattan.
When he arrived at the pier, he couldn’t
convince the police containing the
crowd that he was related to the ship
and he was kept away. He found a
naval officer and approached him begging to help. He was told not to worry,
all was in hand. Defeated, he returned
to his nearby apartment where he

watched in sorrow as his ship burned.
There were 285 casualties: 94
Coast Guard and navy, 38 firemen
and 153 workmen. The Normandie
fire is the 17th largest insurance fire
claim in US history: $53 million
(in 2015 dollars: 746 million).
Sabotage was immediately suspected and both houses of congress,
the FBI, the US Navy and New York City
Attorney General Frank Hogan conducted investigations. Hogan’s summation was apt: “There is no evidence
of sabotage. Carelessness has served
the enemy with equal effectiveness.”
In retrospect, the main flaw of the
Normandie/Lafayette conversion was
confused responsibility. Carl Vinson,
chair of the House Subcommittee
on Naval Affairs, later concluded: “It
was difficult to find out who was the
boss on the Normandie.…Who was
in charge of the burning vessel: the
navy, the coast guard, the fire chief, the
fire commissioner, Admiral Andrews,
Captain Simmers or Lafayette’s designated master Captain Robert Coman?
A persistent thread highlighting the
testimonial fabric of every service witness was deference, an almost palpable
determination to evade responsibility.”
Though wrecked, the Normandie
wasn’t given up. The firm of Merritt,
Chapman and Scott was awarded $5
million to salvage her, and the US paid
France $24 million in compensation.
In November 1943 she was
refloated and towed to the Brooklyn
Naval Yard, languishing there until
Thanksgiving Day 1946, when she
was sold as scrap for $160,000. She
was then towed across the bay to
New Jersey and disassembled.
— Ken Brown



WORLD at WAR 42 | JUN – JUL 2015

75


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